Photo Credit: George Qua-Enoo Photography
Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It has taken on a life of its own even as it has taken on the life of its sole performer, the megalithic force of nature called William Shatner. Since it’s Broadway premier at the Music Box Theatre in February of 2012, Shatner’s World has gone on to tour stages around the United States and Canada in the two years since. Its latest stop will be a one-night-only cinematic presentation hosted by Fathom Events, playing in theaters on Thursday, April 24th. Shatner promises, “A Broadway play for the price of a movie ticket,” showcasing his music, humor, and many iconic performances as a television, film, and stage actor.
According to Shatner, the fact that a one-man-play about his life made it to any stage at all is mostly a matter of chance. “I’ve been asked over the years since the last time I’ve been on Broadway to come back and do a play and in some cases a musical,” he said to the press last Friday via teleconference. “I didn’t have that time nor was I willing to leave my home and hearth for that length of time, so I kept turning them down. But there came a point not so long ago when I thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s it for me in Broadway,’ and within months of that came the opportunity to go to Broadway with this show and go to the exact theater where I’d been in my last Broadway play.”
That last play was A Shot in the Dark starring Julie Harris in 1961, an indicator of just how many decades span Shatner’s life and work. At 81 years old, individual portions of his life could easily be adapted into a two-hour stage play all on their own; from his ups and downs as the poster child for Star Trek to his endeavors as an equestrian and breeder of horses to his sometimes unlikely, but ultimately successful turn as a spoken-word musician. Condensing such a long and rich life into 90 to 120 minutes of stage time meant making some hard choices. According to Shatner, “I had to lose some [stories] getting the show ready for Broadway in trying to sharpen it and refine it and reduce it to its ‘supreme moments’ if you will, where it epitomizes everything that I wanted to say, and not just stories, but extraneous words.” To arrive at those supreme moments, Shatner constructed his script around a central theme. “The core of the show was to say ‘yes’ to life, to give this idea that life is precious and it needs to be embraced with both arms and smothered by you because it’s over so quickly,” he said. “So the stories that went along that spine, that fed that core, were the stories I kept.”
Once Shatner found the stories that best fit the show’s central theme, the job of adapting them into a script began in earnest. “I knew that I needed to start with some laughs and I wanted to lure [the audience] into my thought process, but attract [them] first of all by entertaining [them]. So that meant, to me, comedy—and that’s how I started.” From there, he tackled the challenge for creating rhythm and texture in the material through pacing, variance, and juxtaposition of the various story elements. “So much of it was the flow,” he emphasized, particularly in making sure that all parts of his life were represented without any one part dominating or pushing out the others. According to Shatner, “…it took a little palpitating, but it all sort of fell into place.”
The place it fell into was the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, where the material needed to adapt to the demands of live performance. According to Shatner, “As I played the show, I began to understand that the way to make these stories live for the audience was to live the stories; to play them as though they were happening now… and this is the immediacy of the story which gets your attention and keeps you attracted to the words.” At 90 to 120 minutes a night, Shatner’s World has no shortage of words to wrangle. “You’re talking continuously for two hours and trying to remember the words, and then the sequence,” acknowledged Shatner, a reality of which he was acutely reminded after taking some time away from the tour and then returning to it for an impending Las Vegas engagement over three nights this coming June. “So I’m going to have to learn the lines, so that’s a challenge,” and not the only one. The lighting and media elements of the show are all pre-programmed and stored on a hard drive, all of which needs to be reviewed and rehearsed by the technical personnel at each new venue. As Shatner sums it up, “The dint of the words and everything else requires orgasmic expenditure of energy, and you’ve got to be ready for it.”
That energy is something very much in evidence during his performance. At 81 years old, Shatner spends much of the show jogging around the stage, emoting and dramatizing the twists and turns in his life with great zeal. When asked about the source of his unique dynamism, Shatner said, “It’s part of the entertainer’s magic, I guess, but that’s my energy. That comes from my core, and that’s what I bring to you on stage, you the audience. At my best there is a magical link between the audience and me. I feel it, and you feel it, and I’m there for you. We’re having a love affair, the performer and the audience, and I actually feel the embrace and perform to that, and that’s energizing.”
William Shatner takes a rare breather with his co-chair during “Shatner’s World.”
Photo Credit: George Qua-Enoo Photography
The great strength of Shatner’s World is the energy of the show’s namesake performer, combined with a healthy dose of humor and a pace that sweeps audiences along without propelling them out of the moment. The story begins with Shatner’s misspent youth in Montreal, where he would sometimes skip class to watch burlesque shows to the detriment of his grades. It was in Canada where he first caught the acting bug. His first five years out of university were spent in repertoire stock theater performing in a play a week for as many weeks out of the year as he was able. “Those plays were written by playwrights so that they would make [Samuel] French’s categories and be rented by theatrical groups across the country,” he remembered. “All they had to do was build one set and fill it with five or six actors and they had a play going. So there was a formula, and I was participating in that formula of the one-set, three-act comedy,” a fertile seeding ground for the humor on display in his current show.
Sometimes the narrative in Shatner’s World loops back on itself or shimmies in unexpected directions, with good reason. Shatner observed, “I’ve had the kind of career that was a slow build. Every time something sensational was going to happen – ‘Oh, this is going to make you a start!’ I’ve heard innumerable times – it didn’t work out that way. But there was this slow wave of attention and activity that actually, I think, climaxes in this one-man show.” As he put it another way, “There was no defining moment, or there was a series of small wavelets building to this tsunami.”
Lurking in the background is a sense of how ephemeral things like a career, fame, and even life itself truly are. Death is a recurring theme within the show, an acknowledgement perhaps that part of saying ‘yes’ to life is making peace with the knowledge that life has an end. “I don’t think, ‘I hope I’m remembered for,’ because I know you’re not remembered for anything, actually,” said Shatner. “The appalling truth that comes to me every so often is that these great names of actors and performers that I grew up with – Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, those actors, Lee J. Cobb – all of the people under the age of fifty say, ‘Who?’” When asked to name the secret of his success as an actor, he responded, “I think luck. Luck is a huge factor in the material way of ‘I was there at the right time, at the right place’ for a particular part or a particular venture. But also luck in the fact that I’ve been healthy,” no small matter for any octogenarian. “I have the energy, the joy of life in me. I haven’t been robbed of it by sickness or fatigue, and so I’m able to challenge myself doing what I’m doing right now.”
Perhaps no other role better illustrates the mercurial strands of fortune weaving through Shatner’s life better than the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk in Star Trek. It is no exaggeration to say that Star Trek defined Shatner as an icon in both film and television, but not without a flipside. “When Star Trek was over… usually there’s a period of time after a lead in a series is finished before something else happens,” he said, “as though people doing the hiring say, ‘Well, audiences have seen enough of him for a while.’ So that’s what happened to me and what I did was do theatre, and because of personal circumstances I was broke.” Shatner recalls those years between Star Trek original run on television and the Star Trek films as, “…a trying time. I was working, but not making the kind of money I was making in a series, and I was living in conditions that were not commensurate with having stared in Star Trek.”
Even today, Star Trek continues to touch his life in unexpected ways. Shatner related a story from just the day before our teleconference regarding an event at the Salt Lake Comic Con, “Last night a veteran – a young man who had his legs blown off in Iraq – talked about what Star Trek meant to him and how it kept him alive,” he recalled. “I was uncontrollably crying on stage, as was everybody else. When this kid got up and with courage and bravery and passion talked about his sacrifice—it went beyond anything that words can express; and in that moment I felt such a sense of joy that I was able to be a part of this thing that was able to help him and his buddies and other people through the years. It was so moving; it made Star Trek come alive even more vividly.”
More than any of his past or present roles, as T. J. Hooker, Denny Crane, or the ubiquitous Priceline Negotiator, it is clear that William Shatner sees Shatner’s World as his legacy achievement. “I’m very much aware of how ephemeral fame is,” he acknowledged, “but this moment in time of April 24th and the one-man-show and the fact that I toured it and the fact that I wrote it and—in effect—staged it, I mean this is my creative self being invested in everything. I filmed it. I got it financed. Everything about this thing I did with the help of people I hired. It, to me, is a legacy that I want to hand my kids. ‘Here, take this DVD and, when I’m dead, play it, because this is who your father and grandfather is.’”
Then again, perhaps Shatner’s greatest achievement has yet to come. “What is exciting to me now is the next book or the next film or the next television show,” he said. “I’m inventing all the time. The day before yesterday I was at a creative meeting at a network about new shows that I want to do, and I came up with a couple of ideas that were very funny and very good and they sparked at it, and that to me was the fire that keeps me burning—that creativity, inventing new things and somebody responding to it. That drives me.”
In the end, one gets the sense that, for Shatner, the point is in the doing as much as the end result. “Being a performer, once the performance is over, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s in the ether somewhere and may just as well have not happened. So the next night is the next challenge, and it’s a challenge of many kinds. It’s a challenge of re-doing that performance that only you can remember from last night and doing it today. It’s a challenge also of whether there’ll be an audience. The actor’s remorse is, ‘I’m going to do a performance tonight. I hope an audience will be there.’”
So far, audiences haven’t failed him yet. When asked about the highlight of his journey through the process of bringing Shatner’s Worlds to thousands of fans across the United States and Canada, he answers without hesitation, “…at the end of the evening. I think I’m safe in saying that at every performance I’ve done, the people have stood up and applauded and the emotion that comes over the footlights between me and the audience has moved me to tears many times. There is an affection at the end of the evening that is palpable, and that truly is the highlight for me.”
On Thursday evening, audiences in theaters across the United States will have their chance to enjoy Shatner’s magic for themselves.
Shatner’s World will be appearing for one night only in theaters this Thursday, April 24th. Check Fathom Events for ticket information, theaters, and showtime. Special thanks to Mr. Shatner for making the time to answer our many questions.